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THE War of the Axe had ended, serving the Xhosa nation a stunning defeat. And the British treachery had settled that war expectedly through characteristic British deceit.

The year was 1847, and the face of Xhosa defeat and victimhood, one Sandile, the senior Xhosa chief who had fought the British doggedly, as part of a stretch of wars that we now call Frontier Wars. British occupation, originally confined to the Cape, had kept rolling northwards, in the process coming into collision with African kingdoms which were themselves also expanding, only southwards in their case, towards the Cape.

The great Kei River stood in between, slowly graduating into a snaking boundary between the two diametrically different powers, both of them expansionary. Short of guns, the great Xhosa nation had heroically fought the gun-wielding British with simple axes, foolhardiness by any standard of war brave and heroic by the lore of African resistance and nationalism, the spirit that urge such resistances. It was not about how the Xhosas were armed, it was about how they took a brave stand in defence of their homeland.

British treachery

The war itself had broken out because the British had trampled on terms of an agreement that had ended an earlier war, a war fought 10 years previously. By invitation, Sandile had entered the camp of the British Rifle Brigade, thinking he had been invited to discuss settlement of his people’s grievances.

He was immediately seized and thrown into an airless structure which stood next to the powder magazine, a threat of fatal shooting hanging above him.

And because it was near a powder magazine, the dungeon was kept cold and airless.

Sandile stayed in, bowed but not broken. Worse punishment was administered, by way of a trip to Grahamstown where he was held as a caged spectacle to amuse curious settlers who craved to see the shape of a sample rebel Xhosa chief.

After his eventual release, Sandile never forgot this humiliation, and would always “harbour an abiding fear and suspicion of all things British”.

The Maqoma Harry did not like

The War of the Axes had ended, and a new Governor, Sir Harry Smith, the hero of Aliwal in India, had arrived to pacify another truculent subject nation, this time away from Asia, and on the southern tip of the African continent. Full of himself and with a dandified appearance, Sir Harry renamed himself Inkosi Inkulu, the Great Chief, to firmly declare he stood above all Xhosa chieftaincies, whose stature he dwindled inversely, until they became his “children”, married and bearded though they might have been.

The Victorian ethos infantilised the conquered African. And Sir Harry had this other odiously humiliating practice of lining up Xhosa Chiefs, and making them kiss his high-heeled imperial boots which rose up to meet his groin.

It was even rumoured he went to bed in them, this dandy of a Inkosi Inkulu. He hated Maqoma particularly. Elder brother to Sandile and thus the rightful king by the rule of primogeniture, Maqoma had lost chieftainship by some succession tangle, a loss that left him morose. But he had fought Harry Smith once, in the 1930s, and had humiliated him.

He was a daring general, a thinking king who would not be one and had slid into a habitual drunkard to escape his woes. Twice Sir Harry had harassed and humiliated Maqoma, the worst point being that day Sir Harry forced Maqoma’s neck down and, placing his gubernatorial boot on the chief’s neck, declared, “This is to teach you that I am come hither to show Xhosaland that I am chief and master here.”

Being of royal blood, blood just as blue as Queen Victoria’s, Maqoma felt ravished. His people had lost their land, had forcibly been moved to less fertile lands on the other side of the Keiskamma. His people had lost their cattle. With this, his people were now being humiliated. And Sandile, young brother to Maqoma and the sitting chief, would bitterly record: “The whole of the land of my forefathers is dotted with the white man’s houses and the white surveyor’s flags . . . I would rather die for my country than die without a cause.”

Diseasing Xhosa land

Even nature added to the outrage. The year 1850 opened with a raging drought that withered everything in Xhosaland, not least the spirit of the nation. The hard, baked earth would not yield to the plough, seed would not sprout and a grim fate stared the Xhosas in the face.

Much worse, lung-sickness, that dreaded disease which had killed hundreds of thousands of cattle in Europe, had been shipped into South Africa literally by a Dutch cargo ship carrying Friesland Bulls to Morsel Bay.

It would soon spread across South Africa and beyond, spreading like an evil fire, engulfing British Kaffraria, the new colonial name for subdued Xhosaland. It reached Rhodesia, triggering another war of resistance. At its height, the disease would claim upward of 5 000 animals a month, harvesting from what to a Xhosa was the mainstay.

In came war-doctors, invited to read these omens abounding in this stressed, unhappy and conquered land. Expectedly the war-doctors, led by one Mlanjeni, the riverman, called Xhosaland to arms, thus triggering the famed Mlanjeni War by which the Xhosa made their last, determined collective stand against British colonial encroachment.

The Amathole mountain that would not be conquered

Again Maqoma emerged as the hero of that war which tested Sir Harry’s mettle to the fullest. Fooled by his dandified sense of grandeur, underrating the fighting ardour of the Xhosa, he had haughtily bragged of his powers to land and command shiploads of British soldiers from across the vast waters, beyond what the Xhosa eye could see.

But the unbowed Maqoma had asked Sir Harry: “But have you got any ships that will sail into the Amatolas?” How apt, for in his romanticised imperial self-estimate, Sir Harry had overlooked the Amathole Mountains, the natural fortress of the Xhosa nation, in fact a key weapon to an otherwise out-gunned Nation.

Parts of that vast, stretching hostile mountain range, the war-weary British would rename Mount Misery or the Iron Mountain, as tribute to how this natural, static projectile played havoc to their fighting sons. For his part, Sir Harry would remember the Amathole Mountains as the eater of his grandeur, terminator of his career. From the fastness of Amathole, Maqoma had inflicted a terrible revenge on the “hero of Aliwal”.

A whole British General was eaten by Amathole. Before long, the hero of Aliwal would be recalled unceremoniously by the Imperial Government for failing to handle the whole war. Today the south-western extension of the Amathole range is called Waterkloof, home to South Africa’s Airforce Base. A scene of, and setting for, great African resistance against British colonialism. A clear proof that Africans knew how to mobilise terrain against an approaching enemy.

Cooking heads like dumplings

The war itself was brutal. Xhosaland was used as a testing ground for the very latest in long-range weapons, the rocket and the Minie rifle, weapons that would later conquer the rest of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe included. And whereas the Amathole mountain ranges and the Fish River bush offered defenses, the Xhosa northern front was so exposed that attacking the invader was like “shooting at the Table Mountain with a pop-gun”.

With the recall of Sir Harry came one Lieutenant-Colonel William Eyre whose sense of prosecuting the war meant going against every sense of British honour in the conduct of war. Prisoners were unnecessary, while Xhosa women were just like their husbands they deserved no less. Little children were brained. The savagery of war got exacerbated by the glorious Victorian spirit of scientific enquiry which made grisly collection of human trophies for scientific enquiry an integral part of frontier wars, as is shown by the following record by one Stephen Lakeman, a gentleman-aenturer who raised a corps to fight in the Waterkloof for his own private amusement:

“Doctor A — of the 60th had asked my men to procure for him a few native skulls of both sexes. This was a task easily accomplished. One morning they brought back to camp about two dozen heads of various ages. As these were not supposed to be in a presentable state for the doctor’s acceptance, the next night they turned my vat into a cauldron for the removal of superfluous flesh. And there these men sat, gravely smoking their pipes during the live-long night, and stirring round and round the heads in that seething boiler, as though they were cooking black-Apple dumplings”. Here was a sample behaviour of Christian soldiers, on an onward march to victory.

Walking through Calvary

Or worse, the practice of scavenging for bodies of dead Xhosas and then hanging the corpses up on trees. One historian notes that the final assault on Waterkloof “was less like a battle than a triumphal procession through a charnel house or even, perhaps a Calvary.

Here is another account from one of Colonel Eyre’s conscience-bitten infantryman: “As we ascended the evidences of the fight became more frequent rolling skulls, dislodged by those in front, came bounding down between our legs the bones lay thick among the loose stones in the sluits and gulleys, and the bush on either side showed many a bleaching skeleton. A fine specimen of a Xhosa head, I took the liberty of putting into my saddle-bag, and afterwards brought it home with me to Scotland, where it has been much admired by phrenologists for its fine development”.

Attacking Xhosa wherewithal

I have sampled for you human atrocities associated with frontier wars. Of course there was more. The campaign took an even more devastating dimension of systematically eliminating the Xhosa means of subsistence.

Xhosa fields and gardens were systematically destroyed in a frenzied attack in what an historian has described with grim humour: “Unable to gain a straight military victory over an active and elusive enemy, the British Army now turned its attention to the exposed and immobile host of maize and sorghum located in the Amathole Mountains.”

This was in 1851 2. It was this blow against Xhosa wherewithal which served defeat to the Xhosa. They feared starvation more than they feared war. Indeed 1852 saw mass starvation on a scale quite unimaginable.

When history is shared

Gentle reader, unless you are of Nguni descent, the names of places and people in the preceding accounts sets the action in some faraway land, quite unrelated to you or your forefathers. Yet not quite so. The theatre of the wars I have just recounted is the Eastern Cape of South Africa, spilling into the area where Pretoria stands tall today.

But all that is to reckon relations in terms of physical distance. There is a deeper relationship which makes these wars our story too as Zimbabweans. While the names and numbers of the characters may have been different, the history was the same: a bloody encounter between Africans and imperial Britons.

In some instances the names in the cast were the same. We have Sir George Grey straddling both South African and Zimbabwean history. He came soon after these wars, came from New Zealand where he had also pacified the Maoris. He would be in the South African leadership saddle when Rhodes carved us up for the British plate.

Many leaders in Rhodes’ invading army had distinguished themselves in frontier wars against the Xhosas, the Zulus, the Suthus and the Swazis. The Frank Johnstones, the Col Pennefathers, the Allan Wilsons, etc, etc. Their experience in those wars was brought to bear on the Ndebeles who, after all, had been militarily brewed in the same Nguni pot.

And the collaborating tribes remained the same on both sides of the Limpopo: the Tswanas, the Mfengus. Of course when our turn came twice in 1893 and then 1896, the thoroughly beaten and demoralised Xhosas and Zulus, sires of Grootenboom, crossed the Limpopo as aides to the colonial invasion. They drove invading caravans, cut trees to open the great North Road, fought wars that subdued us, played intelligence corps, thanks to the same languages. The Cape Boy phenomenon, so prominent in the pacification of both Shonas and Ndebeles, emerged from this historical cauldron. Even the animal diseases we grapple with to this day, followed the great North Road through which conquest came, infecting animals, beating veterinary technologies developed by the Ndebeles and Shonas attuned to local maladies. Much worse, the war techniques used in frontier wars found second application here, to comparable devastation. Such is our history, twinning us beyond shared blackness. Or our abortive shared flight from that blackness.

A fighter called Esteria

Three years ago, I went to Centenary to engage veteran fighters of our struggle with a view to documenting that side of our history. It was a lifting odyssey, but one which also reinforced my belief that history is made and moved not by supermen, but by ordinary men and women, only seized with superhuman determination. Just on the outskirts of Centenary, I met a female freedom fighter called Esteria. Many fighters who joined the war in the early 1970s know her as among the pioneering girl-fighters. She carried war material from Chifombo to the shores of the mighty Zambezi, even crossing it to reach the foot of the imposing Mutuzviadonha Mountains, now vulgarised to Matusadonha. When I met her, she had taken a double knock by way of the burdens of a hard war uncompensated, and the burdens of motherhood unfulfilled by lone parenting. She had just taken up a small plot allotted her, thanks to the Land Reform, and was busy making a home and a livelihood out of it. She fought determinedly to beat sparseness of means. Today, I still picture her sitting cross-legged, demure, shelling big maize cobs from her maiden harvest, her unemployed teenager son in tow.

Shungu the diminutive fighter

Further down on the other side of the vast mountain range, in the valley, I met Cde Herbert Shungu, a diminutive you can never, in ordinary life associate with the epic of our struggle. With the front row of his teeth missing — whether from that war or from later brawls, I could not say — this is one fighter acknowledged in Rhodesian war narratives. He captured a unit of South African soldiers loaned to Rhodesia, captured them on the banks of Mazoe River after tricking them into laying down arms. Because of that incident of 1974, South Africa almost pulled out of the conflict. Herbert is there in the Valley, unsung. Then I met another war veteran whose name I can’t recall offhand. He walks with a pronounced limp, a new gaiety from the war. He is a contemporary of the late ZIPRA veteran Nikita Mangena. Trained in 1964, he became a terror for Rhodesians. Today he farms just outside Centenary, well away from his home in Zvimba. I will not overload you with the encounter with Cde Chinodokufa, another diminutive veteran, and his wife, also another veteran. You meet him in the village, he passes for some inconsequential village elder, more likely to be a nuisance than a valuable contact for any end. Yet there he is, a survivor of the Badza rebellion and many battles, from Rushinga right down to Mt Darwin. He saw it all. Other veterans would not talk to me, too bitter to give their history so I could have my own history.

The story of Altena

The high point was a visit to Altena Farm in Centenary. Famed as the scene for the first shot marking the second and final phase of our war of liberation, Altena has often been mistakenly made synonymous with the late Rex Nhongo, General Solomon Mujuru as his real name was, husband to Amai Joice Mujuru, our recently dismissed Vice President. You speak to Cde Tondhlana, now Cde Mataire, he will tell you while the whole group fell under the command of General Mujuru, the reality of it is that it had been split into three units: the first one deployed into the Mtoko area the second into the Centenary area and the last one, which Tondhlana commanded, into the Mashonaland West area. Each group was supposed to hit a target, all simultaneously, to suggest massive build-up of liberation fighters, to suggest a generalised war, in order to overstretch, demoralise and overwhelm the Rhodesians. Tondhlana admits that only the unit deployed to Centenary accomplished its mission within set times. Hence Altena. The commander of that unit is still alive, reportedly farming in Mashonaland West. One day I shall reach him for his story, my story, our history.

History that is nothing

So I reached Altena, reached the house which the Zanla Unit attacked. It is pockmarked with bullet holes, each still telling the heroic-horror story of that fateful night. Horror for the white family, heroic for you and me, black Zimbabweans. A youthful couple now occupies that farm house, following their resettlement there. After a few pleasantries, I asked what they knew about their new home. Nothing, they responded. I asked if their home did not have bullet marks. Their eyes roved up and down the walls of the red-bricked house and, indeed they noticed holes they had not viewed in any significant light. They had just discovered their history in a home in which they had lived since the land reforms. It was a trigger. They then revealed to me how seemingly aimless whites would always visit the house every year, as if visiting a shrine. They, too, were coming for their history, I told them, their history on the same house. Yet today there is nothing about the house that suggests importance. Nothing.

The story of Pongo

Two weeks ago I drove past Shangaan, on my way back to Harare after a fixture in Bulawayo. Just after Shangaan and opposite Nick Oppenheimer’s sprawling Devonshire Farm, I detoured and then turned right into some dirty strip that courses down a small hill leading to a gorge that marks the Shangaan River as it meanders down to some destination I don’t know. Just a few meters off the highway is a monument erected by Rhodesians in honour of their fallen. Two markers in fact. This site, they called Pongo, quite an important site for white historiography. One monument bears names of the fallen, all drawn from British and Afrikaner stocks. The dead had met their deaths in 1896, at the start of the second Ndebele resistance. One face of the monument is now badly defaced, and won’t reveal names of its war dead. The Pongo dead were families scattered in the Shangaan area, either as farmers, shopkeepers, or as miners and prospectors. That scattered and isolated, they presented easy, soft targets to angry impis seeking to evict Rhodes’ corporatised colonialism which had dismantled their kingdom and claimed their King only three years before. These isolated families were butchered, well before they could make it to the safety of laagers, whether in Gwelo, or later in Shangaan itself as the resistance deepened. Rhodesia honoured them through this monument and site. And judging by the stubborn foot track that kneads through the harsh thorny shrubs to and around the site, it is clear the site has pilgrims, whites who come to reconnect with their history and its dead personages. This country is a white cemetery, something that adds emotion to Britain, America and the Netherlands, three countries which won’t disengage from Zimbabwe long after it has ceased to be Rhodesia. We are one huge shrine of white history. We seem unaware of that, which is why very g white attitudes towards us and our bid to assume untrammelled control of the land often baffle us.

Owning Pongo

As I approached the site, my heartbeat picked tempo. My mind went back to Altena Farm, wondering whether history had not inverted. Here I was, a black African invading a site of white history. Except it is my history too. Not just because I own the country, but also because my forbears wielded the gun, machete or spear that ended all the lives immortalised by Pongo. Not only that, but also because this defeat of the white man was a won battle for my forbears and thus for me. A battle won in a war lost. Pongo. My history, their history. But it is in trying to make it our history that a new war begins. Who wins it? Who loses it? Certainly not those who killed or were killed, for they have become a vexatious script we struggle to read. Not the whites connected to that history, for they continue to visit and pay homage, continue to make Pongo a living tissue of their being. Maybe we who now own and govern the land? We the winners? We are the losers? Sorry, not quite. For Pongo lies neglected, defaced, unread, yet un-destroyed. It defiantly exists, immortalising fallen grandeur or mortal defeat, depending of course on who reads. But the owner of the land does not read. No, the governor is illiterate, does not read, and governs a-historically. Pongo lives. His sense of defeating white historiography is through neglect or defacement. But the Rhodesians knew that some harsh, inhospitable era would come, and Pongo needed to weather it. Pongo is built on solid granite which endures, its war dead etched into that hard-to-wear rock off our land. Off the very raw material of our name, Zimbabwe, House of Stone, a chip of which makes Pongo. They have used us to mould enduring cenotaphs to their history.

Pitching history in Zimbabwe

All this history! What do we do with it? Yes, all this history. Altena and Pongo are but two sites. What of that site where Allan Wilson and his comrades fell? Or told differently, where King Lobengula’s impis wiped off a column of invaders? What of Matopos, beneath which exists vaults that hide the remains of Mzilikazi? Or told differently, atop which stands Rhodes, Starr Jameson, the Allan Wilson memorial and one other? The many battle spots around Bulawayo, including Suertown and a whole line along Umguza? In the Makoni area where Chingaira fought twice, on both occasions betrayed by Mutasa and Chipunza? I could go on and on. But key questions are clear: all this history, what do we do with it? Blast it, blast Pongo and forget about it? No, that is to forget that our history exists on that monument, albeit acknowledged backhandedly. Ignore it, live and let live? That describes the current situation which gives us an unknowing people, inhabiting a land they never understand, whose omens they can never read. Co-exist with it, the South African style where Mandela, a Xhosa, gets remembered alongside de Klerk, an Afrikaner? Where two anthems are sung: one African, another Afrikaner. Uuuh, not so sure, for in life, things rarely co-exist, without a sense of hierarchy. Interpret it? Aah, that is the key. Once made history is there to be interpreted for the living, appropriated to living ends. That is where we come short, very short. That is how we have lost the war, we the owners and winners. Overwrite it? Certainly, but only after we have grasped and interpreted that history. But only after we have narrated our recent history, Second Chimurenga, and pitched monuments to it. Then the whole land gets mapped historically, such that we conjure up a new sense, a new meaning informed by firm history. All this history, what to do with it. That is the question. Aluta!



Source : The Herald